Thursday, November 15, 2007

Language Barriers

This blog, in addition to making me feel all lovely from the comments you dear people wrote, apparently makes me a bit brave. When operating from a position where I’ve received support and kindness when admitting weakness, it is far easier to offer that openness to people I actually look at when I speak.

Marlie asked yesterday if we were having a group meeting. I had arrived in the office around 11:45 yesterday after marveling that the campus had turned into a gorgeous specimen of autumn in the last week while I worked from home. There was foliage in yellows and reds contrasting sharply and happily with the sullen grey sky. Tiny yellow leaves littered the pavement in the parking lot and larger leaves in a more vivid shade blanketed the ground under a lovely maple. I was distracted from my guilt over having stayed away so long and the running list of things that must get done by the utter beauty of the day. I like Fall very much.

“I don’t think so.” I told her. “We usually get an email with some idea of what we’ll be discussing. And we don’t meet every week.” She looked surprised at that news and I wondered if she knew something I didn’t. “Let’s go ask.” I decided, for that’s my solution to most things.

When I turned the corner on my way to see Boss, I glanced over my shoulder to find the hallway empty. Perhaps she forgot something and will be along shortly, I decided. The pressure of my list of things to do nudged me forward and I continued to move briskly through the hall to knock on Boss’s open door. He smiled upon seeing me, turning away from the document he was reading on this computer screen. He said we wouldn’t meet until December for various reasons and outlined some ideas he’s had recently. I readily agreed to help where he asked for my assistance and went back to my office, wondering where Marlie had gone.

She was standing by her desk, waiting for me and I frowned in dismay. I should have waited, I thought, and encouraged her to follow me to meet with Boss. “No meeting.” I said gently. “Then there’s Thanksgiving and a conference, so we probably won’t congregate again until December. But Boss was telling me about this other project you could do and asked me to help put things together. So you should ask EB (Evil Boss) what the priority is for this new endeavor then let me know. I can help you with lit searches and technical details and can provide whatever help you need. Sound good?”

It sounded, I decided with a look at her dimming smile and confused expression, like she had no idea what I said. I called myself a jackass and smiled apologetically. I rolled my chair closer and she did the same until we met near the middle of the room. I cut down the lengths of my sentences and used only simple words. I kept my eyes on her to make sure she understood before I moved on to the next idea. I nodded encouragingly when she wrote down the question she was to ask. Then I responded enthusiastically in the affirmative when she confirmed that I would help her.

“You will have lunch with me?” She asked when I turned back to finally turn on my computer. I’d spent 20 minutes with her so far and wanted to check email and get started on my list.

“Of course.” I said, for I’m truly not evil. Just a bit selfish, and I can overcome it. “Would you like to go soon or a bit later?” I don’t like the crowds at noon, as Friend can attest as I often refuse to eat unless we go at 11 or after 1:30 (much preferring the former, of course). It was just minutes after noon and I smiled resignedly when she said we could go now. “Let me check my email and get something started.” I said. “Then I’m all yours.”

We wandered to a Subway not far from campus because she told me to pick what I wanted after I stopped to get money. A sandwich sounded good, I decided and we moved in that direction. The line was long and we moved to the end to wait our turns to order. Talking was even more of a challenge in the loud space. We tried to stick to basic information. Do you have friends here? Where do you live? How big is your family? We slowly moved closer to the counter and the first of three uniformed sandwich-makers - all models of efficiency, asked for my order while I was still two people away from the glass shield. I gave it quickly, moving easily with my line of hungry people, and answered the questions as they were offered about cheese and warmed vs. toasted and what veggies I liked.

I glanced back at Marlie and blinked when I noticed she was a good two feet away from me as I stood closely to the woman in front of me as we waited to pay. She was staring between the menu on the wall behind the sandwich-makers and the first man who impatiently waited for her order. As she haltingly told him what she wanted, I winced and felt my stomach cramp that I had subjected her to the list of questions inherent in ordering a sandwich.

I didn’t eat when I was in Japan, I remembered, staring at the case of cookies while I approached the cashier. Instead I nibbled on the bag of pretzels I carted over the ocean and rationed the tiny chocolates the hotel workers placed on my pillow each day. Much as I loved the experience - and I did - there are elements of visiting a foreign country that were terribly difficult for me. Finding and ordering food was the biggest, so I skipped it. There was much to see and after awhile, I stopped feeling so hungry as I grew used to having just a little bit each day.

I left the conference early one day, riding the train back to my station and walking toward the escalators that would bring me aboveground. There was nobody at the Subway in Kyoto Station as it was mid-afternoon and I gathered my courage and faced the young woman behind the counter. She greeted me and I ducked my head in my awkward approximation of a bow. I had nothing, frankly. My meager Japanese learned from CDs didn’t cover turkey or bread types, cheeses or lettuce. But I was hungry and can’t describe to you how desperately I wanted that sandwich.

Being exceptionally kind, the young lady must have read my confusion and frustration, so she pointed at the pictures that were clinging to the glass. Relieved, I pointed to a picture of the bread I wanted. She squinted at the back of the transparent sticker and pulled a loaf from the warmer and showed it to me. I nodded and smiled while she cut it open. We repeated the process for cheeses since there was another sticker on the glass. I must have looked crestfallen when there were no pictures of actual sandwich types. She moved backward to the menu located on the wall behind her and began to point at various combinations of meats until I nodded at one of them. We did that some thing with the vegetables and I nodded eagerly again when she pointed to a picture of some flavored potato side item. She bagged my meal and took my money and I tried to figure out how to tell her how moved and grateful I was for her patience and help.

“Thank you.” I said, putting emphasis on the words. “You’re so nice and I’m so hungry and thank you.” She nodded and smiled and I moved toward the exit once again. I proceeded back to my hotel and huddled protectively over my feast as I spread it out on the bed. I was finally full after I finished and savored the feeling along with the realization that I hadn’t had to swallow my discomfort over looking into the eyes of whatever seafood I’d ordered or tried to figure out what kind of ingredient was lurking in the curry.

As I watched Marlie slowly make her selections, I winced at the impatience and unkindness evident in the workers at this Subway. They were much busier, of course, and she was holding up their line. Plus, she’s lived in the US for upwards of five years now so - in my defense - I hadn’t known she’d struggle so with ordering food. I wanted to escape the situation and waited while she grabbed three lids for her soda, unable to reach the station to put two back and following me with extra bits of translucent plastic in her hands.

“Let’s go outside.” I suggested, wanting to be somewhere else. I needed quiet and far fewer people and she followed me as we moved toward campus again. “We’ll find a table somewhere.” I said since Friend and I can usually find a place to sit outside and have lunch when we decide to do so. “We’ll be fine if it doesn’t rain on us.”

We hurried toward an overhang when water almost immediately began falling from the sky. I decided America was just mean before I spotted an empty table protected by the building surrounding it.

“Is this OK?” I asked, moving toward it. “We won’t get wet and it’s quieter here.” She nodded and smiled and we sat across from each other as we removed sandwiches from bags and placed straws into our drinks. I tucked her extra lids in my empty bag, not wanting her to be embarrassed if they lingered on the table. Then we talked. I asked when she’d last seen her family in Korea.

“Before I started this job.” She told me, smiling. “Easy there. I can talk and they understand. My English isn’t so good. But in Korea, I can relax.” I nodded sympathetically, recalling how isolated I sometimes felt in Japan. Unable to speak the language, I was mostly trapped in my own head. I could smile and shrug when salespeople asked questions as I selected a tape measurer that looked like a blue elephant and lovely stationary. I could wait patiently for the announcement in English when on the train or to hear the words I’d memorized that told me my stop was soon. I remember saying “Very pretty” to the woman who owned the small pottery stand where I purchased several small pieces. She bowed in thanks. I think. But mine was a short adventure - being moved by her kindness when someone offered a brochure in my language at a tourist location, feeling awed with gratitude for a friendly Subway employee, typing eagerly into a computer that would translate for us when the man who had the window seat on the train back to Tokyo was telling me to watch for Mt. Fuji soon.

“When did you start to learn English?” I asked. So she told me of middle school classes and the institute she attended before coming to America. She said she would avoid her first PI because she simply got too nervous trying to speak to him. She resolutely decided she’d become less shy and talk to more people to improve her skills. Then she asked if I spoke a foreign language.

“I learned Spanish in high school. But that was 10 years ago.” I shook my head when she asked if it was like English. “English is a weird language.” I said. “Not really like many others, I think.”

“Difficult.” She said and I smiled and nodded, grateful I’d grown up speaking it and happy I didn’t want to live abroad.

“I tried to learn Japanese.” I told her. “I would laugh in my car as I listened to the CDs because my mouth couldn’t make the right sounds. I would hear the word and try to repeat it and I just couldn’t get it out. I didn’t know how to hold my tongue or form my lips to say the words - it was just really different. And difficult.”

She nodded eagerly and I smiled, glad I’d tried to learn so I could have some vague idea of how completely strange it was to want to say a word and being somehow unable to do so.

“So.” I said, deciding I had something else to share. “Your project is very big.” I offered, spreading my hands far apart and placing them on the table. She watched my palms so I left them there for a moment. “Many pieces.” I continued, dividing the table into smaller sections. She nodded. “That’s also difficult.” I said and she looked up at my face without speaking.

“I feel overwhelmed a lot.” I said, opting for honesty since it’s what I’d offer if she read my blog. “Stressed. Too much going on and too many things to do. Boss always has many ideas, but he understands if you tell him you don’t have time to do something right now.”

“It’s OK?” She asked doubtfully.

“Yes.” I replied firmly. “And it’s important. You need to sleep. Do fun things. Have friends. Go to your church. There is always work to do, but Boss will understand if you’re very busy and need time. He goes to church. Travels. Spends time with his wife.”

“I feel overwhelmed.” She admitted softly. “So much training to do and papers to read and people to meet.”

“I feel overwhelmed too.” I reminded her. “It’s OK. You’re doing great and getting settled is hard.” When she looked confused, I tried again. “Starting a new project?” I said and she nodded. “Hard.” I decided simply and she nodded. “You’ll tell me if you need help.” I insisted. “I want to help you if I can.”

“Thank you, Katie.” She said, my name sounding slightly awkward coming from her. She paused between syllables, as if her mouth needed to rest between forming the sounds.

“You’re welcome, Marlie.” And I noticed I paused between the syllables of her real name, trying to get it right and knowing I was only sort of close. We started to walk back to the office after throwing away trash. I invited her to come to my house for dinner and she said I should come see her new condo after she moves in two weeks. I agreed, finding I liked her a great deal and wishing it was easier for us to talk. But we would figure it out, I decided.

I heard her speak, voice suddenly lyrical and fluid, as a man approached. I didn’t understand what she said - I don’t know a single word of Korean - but I was startled at how happy and easy and lovely her speech suddenly was. The man smiled at both of us and spoke to Marlie briefly.

“He is my friend.” She told me. “Also from Korea.”

“So it’s easier to talk to him.” I smiled at her as we began to walk again. She nodded and as we walked in the door to our building, I turned when she said my name.

“It’s easy to talk to you too.” She said and I returned the compliment after thanking her. It may not be completely true, but I think it's important to try.


Anonymous said...

Languages are such a strange barrier, but the language of nice is universal. It is so interesting to hear about the difficulties that people have learning different languages and bout the cultures that infiltrate them, offers translation of over 100 different languages and a really great help into the culture that goes into it. It may be helpful to people when learning or dealing with a language that is not their first often.

Pink Shoes said...

Thank you for sharing this encounter, and reminding me of the great struggle that folks have when trying to communicate. I often take for granted how I move in and out of conversation and occasion.

doc-in-training said...

Great story, Katie, and good luck to Marlie. It's very difficult to have to deal with the stress from a job on top of a culture and a language that is different from the one one's grown up in. I can relate.

ScienceWoman said...

Further proof that you are an angel.

Anonymous said...

agreeing with science woman!

post-doc said...

Nice may be universal, but it's not always easy to find.

Pink Shoes-
Hello! It's hard for me in situations like this because I talk like I write. I cut sentences up with random thoughts, I use words I think are pretty but aren't really necessary to convey the thought. It's so ingrained that I have to focus to simplify my speech (which may not be a bad idea for me overall).

I thought you could relate a bit and your recent post about this was thoughtful and helpful.

You're sweet, but I think there's always room for me to do more. I do hope she feels comfortable asking for my help though. That was the goal.

You're a darling too. I hope you feel much better very soon.

Amelie said...

That was very kind of you, Katie.
It might actually be worse for her since she's been in the country for 5 years as opposed to, say, 2 months. After a while it is expected that you've picked up a sufficient amount of the language... or at least that's the way I feel about Spanish. Not that I'm happy about it, but well, my level of the language is not great yet.

Post a Comment